LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - A wedding planner accepted a plea bargain deal of four years of deferred adjudication for taking more than $15,000 for services and items which were not provided for a May 3, 2014 wedding.
Aleck Kim Bridwell, 50, of Lufkin, appeared in Judge Bob Inselmann's 217 Judicial District Court Tuesday for a plea bargain hearing. He was originally arrested on the theft charge in August 2014.
Both Bridwell and his defense attorney Scott Tatum declined to comment following the hearing.
As part of the plea bargain, Bridwell pleaded guilty to state-jail felony theft between $1,500 and $20,000. Bridwell will be required to pay a $500 fine. After a 30-day investigation period, he will also be required to pay an undetermined amount of restitution to the victim, Lindsay Syler Gilstrap.
In a written statement, Gilstrap said, ""What should have been a very special day and time in my husband's and my life turned into near disaster because one person didn't fulfill his obligations to a commitment he made as a wedding planner, misrepresented truths, and stole and misused funds already paid to him toward rentals, decorations, and wedding necessities."
Gilstrap also gave a warning to other soon-to-be brides.
"It is our hope that others won't ever have to experience the things we experienced for a wedding day and days after," Gilstrap said. "The loss of a significant sum of money hurts, but the loss of beautiful, wonderful memories hurts even more. My advice to other women planning for their beautiful day or event is to be sure they have a good and legally bound contact with their planner and to be sure to keep close watch on financials and/or pay the rental companies and suppliers directly. "
Deferred adjudication is very similar to probation. Dustin Fore, a supervisor with the Angelina County Adult Probation Department said the difference is that deferred adjudication keeps the person from having a felony conviction on their record. The charge and punishment will still show up on a criminal background check, Fore said.
Bridwell works in the Angelina Co. District Clerk's office. District Clerk Reba Squyers said Bridwell has worked in her office since 2011.
"The elected officials can hire who they see fit," Squyers said. "Bridwell has always been a good employee. He has never given us a reason to not employee him through this process. He was not convicted since it was deferred so he is still able to work in my office."
The investigation started in May of 2014, when Gilstrap, filed a report with the Lufkin Police Department, which accused her wedding planner of taking more than $15,000 for services and items that were not provided. The report listed the offense as misappropriation of fiduciary or financial property between $1,500 and $20,000, which is a state-jail felony.
"Her big day was ruined," said Gilstrap's attorney, Jimmy Cassels.
According to the narrative of the police report, Gilstrap hired Bridwell to be her wedding planner on Oct. 30, 2013. She told the Lufkin Police Department that she signed a contract with Bridwell in which he estimated his part in the planning the wedding to be $4,000. He also charged her an additional $1,200 for the clean up after the ceremony.
The wedding was scheduled for May 3, 2014, at Winston 8 Ranch, and Gilstrap estimated the total cost of the ceremony to be $40,000.
"Syler [Gilstrap] said she has been paying [the suspect] for items and contractors with checks and cash," the narrative stated. "On the day of the wedding, Bridwell called her mother, Linda Syler, and told her his wallet had been stolen, and $6,000 of Lindsey's money was in it, and without it, there would be no wedding. Gilstrap's mother paid him $3,000, and the wedding was performed on time."
Gilstrap told the Lufkin Police Department that many of the items and services that they paid for were not provided. According to the narrative, Bridwell contracted with The Outback Steakhouse in Lufkin for approximately $6,300 worth of steaks for the wedding. However, Syler learned that Outback had not been paid, according to the narrative.
The owner and operator of The Outback Steakhouse, who declined to give his name, told the East Texas News that his restaurant and employees had been paid in full for catering Gilstrap's wedding.
In addition, Bridwell was allegedly given a check to pay for breakfast for the wedding party at Hole in One. Gilstrap said she later learned that bill was also not paid. The narrative also said Bridwell accepted and cashed a check for "Porta Johns," but they were never delivered to the wedding location.
Gilstrap told the Lufkin Police officer that she and her husband checked the wedding location the day after the ceremony, and that it had not been cleaned up as Bridwell had promised.
According to the narrative, Gilstrap tried to set up a meeting with Bridwell on May 8. However, she was allegedly texted by a third-party subject that said the suspect "was having problems and would not be able to attend the meeting." Later that day, Bridwell texted Syler and told her he was sorry and that he expected to be punished for doing wrong, the narrative stated.
Gilstrap told the Lufkin Police Department that she continued texting Bridwell over the course of the next few days in an effort to set up a meeting. However, Bridwell never contacted her back.
The narrative stated that Gilstrap told the LPD officer she estimated that she paid more than $15,000 in cash and checks to the wedding planner for services and items that were not provided.
"Nothing is going to make it right again; she can't get back her wedding day, and she can't get back the memories she missed. What she can do is hopefully get back some of the money she paid for an event she didn't get," Cassels said. "Her preferred outcome would be that he be convicted and that he pay back the money he owes her in restitution."
In addition to the possible criminal charge against the wedding planner, there is a pending lawsuit against him in small claims court that alleges he misappropriated funds in a similar manner when he was contracted as a wedding planner for another wedding.
The lawsuit, which was filed by Carroll Lewing, states Bridwell contracted with Lewing to plan their wedding for the agreed price of $3,000. In addition, the family agreed to pay another $15,000 to the suspect to distribute to various vendors and businesses for wedding-related services and items.
According to the lawsuit's petition, Lewing is seeking a judgment of $15,000, along with at least $5,000 to cover the cost of her legal fees.
Cassels said if you don't want to end up like his client. he suggest you lay out the ground work with your wedding planner and make sure you have a concrete contract in place.
"You should have a very detailed contract. I think, if possible, you should pay directly to the supplier and know what that supplier is going to do for you in your wedding situation," Cassels said.